The Echo Park I first stepped into during the 1980s was very different from what you see now. I remember sitting in my mom's 2-door Toyota Corolla sans A/C (just to give you an old-school reference), slowly crawling up the steep hills to visit her great uncle. The streets were cracked, walls were tagged up and teenagers "kicked it" out by their cars with loud, bassy music. I'm not going to lie, it wasn't the most ideal neighborhood. In fact, our visits there were short and fueled with a purpose. We often urged our mom to drive through the streets a bit faster. To some people in the neighborhood, this Chinese family really had no business hanging out in their area. A friend of mine who grew up here as a teen recalled it a tough and cautious time in Echo Park – he is Chicano.
Echo Park was once the center of the film industry before it moved to Hollywood before WWI. But in the 1970s and 1980s, it became a largely Latino and Chicano neighborhood with a few sprinkles of Chinese, Filipinos and Vietnamese. With a large population of immigrants in an impoverished area, there's bound to be a large presence of gang and drug activity. Echo Park had quickly earned its name as a gang city.
But things changed after 2000, as a lot of musicians and artists started moving into Echo Park because Silver Lake, Los Feliz and Atwater Village were experiencing a high demand and increased real estate value. As a result, the rent in Echo Park began to increase as well. This is both a fortunate and unfortunate situation for the people of Echo Park. Although the gang and drug violence decreased substantially, this movement also affected hard-working Latino families, hippies, blue-collar workers, musicians and artists that had nothing to do with violence. Some have lived in the same residence for decades and were now forced to pack up their bags and move South towards the Rampart area and even East LA. Naturally, there is resentment for the gentrification. To this day, there are still signs of the "old" Echo Park, with the occasional shooting and "homeboy" meeting outside a liquor store. If you've been to the Echo Park grocery store on Echo Park/Duane or Chango on Echo Park/Delta, you're standing on what was once a big gangster hangout.
Before moving to Silver Lake, I had checked out a few places in Echo Park as I was one of the many that wanted to move into Silver Lake, but could not afford it. Jeni had moved there and I was getting tired of driving all the way from West LA to see her. I love Echo Park though. It feels rich in diversity and has a lot of character to it. Even with the tagged up walls and pot-hole ridden streets, it is a real icon of what urban Los Angeles "is". What's interesting is that Echo Park still maintains a very neighborhood-like vibe. With exception to a Walgreens, three or four fast food chains, American Apparel and an Autozone, the area is still dominated by mom and pop shops along Sunset Blvd. – old antique and furniture stores, bargain stores, boutiques, eateries and small grocery stores. A lot of the residents are of Latino heritage and many rely on their feet, bicycles and buses to get around.
On Echo Park Avenue, the once gang-ridden area has become sort of its own hipster street with a salon, coffee shop, pet store and various boutiques. I've driven by so many times with Jeni and asked her why there weren't more small businesses. The area was obviously very chill and low-key – it really just needed a restaurant or bar. We had even dreamed of running a noodle joint in the area but that quickly dissipated. I knew someday something interesting would be opened up on the block of Echo Park Avenue and Delta.
And then that's when we heard about Cookbook, a unique concept by Marta Teegen and Robert Stelzner. Every small neighborhood has a grocery store, but Teegen and Stelzner's offers responsibly grown organic produce and even offers food cooked fresh daily. The food itself comes with purpose. As you may get a hint from the name, Cookbook offers dishes each week from a different featured cookbook. For the hipsters that live off Echo Park Avenue, finally... a place to pick up quality goods and even a bite to eat when they want a break from writing their screenplays or figuring out that one song that will grant them a beeline to the Echoplex stage.
A lot of good things happened last year for the residents of Los Feliz, Silver Lake, Atwater Village and Echo Park. Especially if you're one that adores food. You've got McCall's - a husband and wife-run meat and fish shop that has everything you'll need. You've got the Spice Station - an amazing shop that basically bridges you to spices from every possible country. Even herbs and spices from Space! You've got Jason Kim's Forage - the hip cafeteria that serves comfort food and side dishes for a great price. And now you've got Cookbook, your everyday grocery store that carries great butter, milk, cheese and bread. You can easily plan your whole dinner for the evening without having to ride your "fixie bike" more than 2 miles.
The idea for Cookbook didn't happen overnight. It's actually been 'baking' for quite a while. Rewind back some 12 years. Marta Teegen finds herself leaving a PhD program in Art History to study Politics. That eventually fell through after 7 years and she remembered what it was she always enjoyed being around: food. Growing up on a farm was one thing she knew well and for some time, her father's family had supplied tomatoes to the Campbell's soup people. She then enrolled at the New School of Cooking in Culver City for the chefs training program and mixed both her love for cooking and farming into a business that offered kitchen and garden design, known as Homegrown LA. And if this story couldn't get any better, Teegen published her first book in April 2010, titled Homegrown A Growing Guide for Creating a Cook's Garden. And here we are at her latest venture, Cookbook LA, which took them nearly 3 years of waiting to secure. Hang on, let's all download that information slowly.
Right when you walk in, you're flanked with today's farmer's market vegetables that Marta and Robert sometimes handpick. To the right, you can hear the buzzing from the fridge that holds some of the best milk I've tasted. It's straight up cream! The butter and cheese are very nice as well. To the left, you've got your dried goods including pasta and my favorite roasted piquillo peppers. And straight ahead, you've got the food from the featured cookbook.
This isn't just your standard bread. This is called "Amazing" bread and its baked by a place called Bread Lounge in Downtown LA. Teegen is a woman with patience, as this bread took her nearly 5 months to find. We tried the olive bread out and it is some of the best I've eaten in Los Angeles. Baked beautifully but still moist, almost damp, inside. The olives are not too salty either. I think we ended up taking home 4 pieces of bread.
We came to Cookbook the week they were featuring a 5-book series called Canal House Cooking, which I had never heard of. But we took at the food in the display case and knew it was totally our style of food we liked to eat – much like Forage. Teegen is also good friends with Chef Erin Eastland of Cube (aka Divine Pasta Co.) on La Brea and prepares a lot of the food freshly in their kitchen.
Roast Garlic with Balsamic Vinegar
Teegen and Stelzner's story is yet another story of people that followed their passion for food and we wish them the best luck. We are truly stoked to see a food-related boutique on that street finally. That block on Echo Park Avenue and Delta Street for some reason, feels more complete. The amount of skinny hipsters have not decreased since Cookbook's debut, but at least they can't complain about being so stylishly anorexic. Now, if only there was a place to grab a beer or cocktail. Thanks for reading.
*Note: Cookbook is in the process of developing a range of food-related classes, tastings, and readings, including kitchen garden basics, still life painting, ikebana, food history, backyard baking, and more!
1549 Echo Park Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90026